Sing Me Awake: Listening and The Mysterious Hidden Woman

Richard and Heidi - Richard's Honeymoon Bay Retreat - Nov. 28th to Dec. 1st, 2013


This is what was bequeathed us:
This earth the beloved left
And, leaving,
Left to us.

No Other world
But this one:
Willows and the river
And the factory
With its black smokestacks.

No other shore, only this bank
On which the living gather.
No meaning but what we find here.
No purpose but what we make.

This and the beloved’s clear instructions
Turn me into song, sing me awake.

Gregory Orr from How Beautiful the Beloved,
Copper Canyon Press, 2009

Turn me into song. Sing me awake! This was the title of my latest poetry retreat held this past weekend (November 28th to December 1st) at the Honeymoon Bay Lodge and Retreat on Vancouver Island. There was a lot of remarkable singing from fifteen writers! Lots of awake poets! Here’s a new version of the introduction I wrote for that retreat:

Poet, Lover, Birdwatcher

To force the pace and never to be still
Is not the way of those who study birds
Or women. The best poets wait for words.
The hunt is not an exercise of will
But patient love relaxing on a hill
To note the movement of a timid wing;
Until the one who knows that she is loved
No longer waits but risks surrendering –
In this the poet finds his moral proved,
Who never spoke before his spirit moved.

The slow movement seems, somehow, to say much more.
To watch the rarer birds, you have to go
Along deserted lanes and where the rivers flow
In silence near the source, or by a shore
Remote and thorny like the heart’s dark floor
And there the women slowly turn around,
Not only flesh and bones but myths of light
With darkness at the core, and sense is found
By poets lost in crooked, restless flight,
The deaf can hear, the blind recover sight.

Nissim Ezekiel (1924 – 2004) from Being Human, edited by Neil Astley, Bloodaxe Books, 2011

The Indian poet Nissim Ezekiel reminds me to face the blank page and, if a word has not come already, to wait, to wait for words to come to me. As the American poet Jack Spicer says – a poet is a catcher not a pitcher. And from a wonderful old story a friend told me comes this question and answer: How do you find your words? You wait by the watering hole where words come to drink. You listen in a place of silence inside you. As Ezekiel says, a poet must go:

Along deserted lanes and where the rivers flow
In silence near the source, or by a shore
Remote and thorny like the heart’s dark floor
And there the women slowly turn around,
Not only flesh and bones but myths of light
With darkness at the core,…

What a turn and double play Ezekiel makes when he writes: And there the women slowly turn around./ Not only flesh and bones but myths of light/ With darkness at the core. This
image connects back to his first lines: To force the pace and never to be still/ Is not the way of those who study birds/ Or women. Suddenly an image of mythological women, of  goddesses, has entered the poem. But not just some bright inspiration – myths of light- but a vision with darkness at the core.

This darkness at the core. Is this a poet’s work: to be called by the light of inspiration but not to avoid the dark it will illuminate? And when I think of this I remember the words of the American poet Linda Gregg (1942 – ) from her poem Paul on the Road to Damascus: The soul is dark in its nature, but shines.

And these thoughts and words remind me of this haunting poem by American poet James Wright (1927 – 1980).


The moon drops one or two feathers into the fields.
The dark wheat listens.
Be still.
There they are, the moon’s young, trying
Their wings.
Between trees, a slender woman lifts up the lovely shadow
Of her face, and now she steps into the air, now she is gone
Wholly, into the air.
I stand alone by an elder tree, I do not dare breathe
Or move.
I listen.
The wheat leans back toward its own darkness,
And I lean toward mine.

James Wright from Above The River – The Complete Poems – Farrar, Starus & Giroux, 1990

Wright not only captures the importance of the listening a poet must do but echoes Ezekiel’s and Gregg’s reference to the dark. I listen./ The wheat leans back toward its own darkness,/ And I lean toward mine. And is there a connection between this “other” woman in Wright’s poem and the mysterious women in Ezekiel’s poem? Is waiting and listening what brings these presences closer, makes them visible?

In an essay on James Wright, the American poet Robert Bly calls this female figure the Mysterious Hidden Woman….One could call her Aphrodite, or the Delicate One, or Sophia. Whatever we call her she is helpful to poetry. He says that this presence changes how see what is around us. The trees and field don’t change; but it is as if we have new eyes for what is there, or rather new ears.

Bly seems to be saying that a certain kind of listening can change everything! And it certainly does in this poem by the Asian-American poet Li-Young Lee. And by coincidence or not, this poem also has a female figure, his mother, who seems to act as a transforming presence.

Build By Flying

I lean on a song.
I follow a story.
I keep my mother waiting
when she asks, How long
before the wren finishes the grain?
How soon until we see
what a house the birds
build by flying? In the dream
in which I stopped with her
under branches, on the long way home from school,
one of us, curious
about the fruit overhead, asked:
To what port has the fragrance so lately
embarked, for whose tables?
One of us waited for the answer.
And one went on alone,
singing. And all of the place
there was grew out of listening.

Li-Young Lee (1957 – ) from Book of my Nights, BOA Editions, 2001

Li-Young Lee is a poet of birds, of flying; of making houses in the air with his words; of doing what a poet does – leans on a song and builds his own by flying from it, a song, a story at a time. Lee creates mystery, ambiguity. I imagine a boy reading books and stories (like the wren eating its grain) but his mother, the muse, asks: How soon until we see what a house the birds build by flying? When will the boy write his own songs and stories?

And later, it is not the fruit that matters, it’s the fading fragrance of that fruit that leads one of them to follow and sing their own song. This poem is full of surprises. Especially the unexpected question asked by one of the speakers ( we’re not told which one):To what port has the fragrance so lately/ embarked, for whose tables? Such longing is evoked by these words. Such a call to explore and journey on. (And do I hear, possibly, the faintest echo of Constantine Cavafy’s great journey poem Ithaka?)

And what a clincher: And all of the place/ there was grew out of listening.

What do I make of this beguiling last sentence? We’re back at listening. The importance of it. Both as a reader and a writer. Something transforms, grows when we sing of it. When we write of it. The way I grow when I hear or read a poem that sings to the depths of me. As I slip into the language of Lee’s dream inside his poem I imagine that the mysterious fruit could be the poem, or story of someone else and our calling as a writer is not to stop there but let something from it, a fragrance, lead us on to find, to listen for, our own poems, our own songs.